Part Three of a Four-Part preview of the Yankees 2011 season.
When thinking about how to organize this season preview, I was initially going to include the catchers as part of an infield preview. However, considering the changes that have occurred and will continue to occur behind the plate, it seems that the catching situation warrants its own section.
There are a number of players involved in this storyline: The aging veteran who is reluctantly giving up the position he has held for over a decade; the free agent acquisition brought in to fill his shoes; and the two different but promising young prospects (and also Francisco Cervelli).
For the first time since 1998, Jorge Posada will not be the Yankees starting catcher, as he is making the move to designated hitter. Despite Posada’s understandable uneasiness towards this move, it seems to be warranted, as at age 39, his defense has been diminishing. In 2010, he threw out only 15% of attempted base stealers, the worst season of his career in this category.
The question with regards to Posada is will we see him at catcher at all this season, and if so, how much? As things stand now, the Yankees plan to use him exclusively as a DH, with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman saying that he would only catch in an “emergency” role, according to the Daily News. This question was posed to manager Joe Girardi during the television broadcast of the team’s second exhibition game on Sunday. “Our plan is not to catch him,” Girardi said, but he also added that “circumstances a lot of times dictate what you do during the course of a season.” With this in mind, barring injuries, it is unlikely Posada will see any significant time catching this season.
Replacing Posada at catcher is Russell Martin, who was signed this offseason after spending his first five major league seasons with the Dodgers. Martin, 28, is a two-time all-star who also won a Gold Glove award in 2007. He is regarded as a solid defensive player who has also put up good offensive numbers in his career. However, a hip-injury limited his playing time in 2010, and his production has declined in his last two seasons relative to his first three. From 2006-2008, Martin averaged a .285 batting average and an OPS of .805. The last two seasons, he hit .250 and .248, with an average OPS of .680. Still, this likely is at least partly due to his hip injury, so assuming that he has recovered, it stands to reason Martin can return to his previous levels of success.
The signing of Martin complicates things for Francisco Cervelli, the team’s backup catcher the past two seasons. The Yankees think highly of catching prospects Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, so if the club deems either one ready for the majors, with Martin starting, Cervelli would be expendable. Cervelli would not have great trade value, especially not relative to Montero or Romine, but he has been a solid backup and seems to work well with the team’s pitchers. If the club wants both of the prospects to remain in the minors, and follows through on its plan to make Posada the full-time DH, Cervelli would continue to have a role with the Yankees.
Complicating matters further is an injury Cervelli suffered on Wednesday, and according to ESPN New York, this could force the team to reassess its catching situation.
The severity of the injury is currently unknown. [UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting that Cervelli will miss at least six weeks due to a foot injury].
The most interesting questions at the position involve Montero and Romine, and there are many of them. Are both players in the team’s long term plans or will the Yankees attempt to use one as trade bait? Will Montero’s defense be sufficient at the major league level? Can one of them make the Yankees major league roster this season? Of the two, Montero is seen as the better hitter, while Romine is considered more polished defensively. That said, Cashman told Josh Norris of the The Trentonian that Montero’s defense has “come a long way,” going as far as saying “we believe he’s better than some starting catchers, defensively, in the big leagues right now.” This reported improvement has fueled speculation that Montero could win the backup catching job this spring, and the injury to Cervelli has intensified these thoughts. Still, whether this would be in the team’s long term interests is another debate.
Those opposed to Montero serving a backup role in 2011 say that this would stunt his growth, arguing that he needs as much playing time at the position as possible, and thus should remain in the minors. Advocates of Montero making the majors this season counter this by saying Posada was broken into the big leagues by serving as a backup to Girardi for a number of seasons.